Themes of Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher

Major Themes

Mortality: The plot of Poe's tale essentially involves a woman who dies, is buried, and rises from the grave. But did she ever die? Near the horrific finale of the tale, Usher screams: "We have put her living in the tomb!" Premature burial was something of an obsession for Poe, who featured it in many of his stories. In "The Fall of the House of Usher," however, it is not clear to what extent the supernatural can be said to account for the strangeness of the events in the tale. Madeline may actually have died and risen like a vampire--much as Usher seems to possess vampiric qualities, arising "from a sofa on which he had been lying at full length" when the Narrator first sees him, avoiding all daylight and most food, and roaming through his crypt-like abode. But a more realistic version of events suggests that she may have been mistaken for dead--and luckily managed to escape her tomb. Either way, the line between life and death is a fine one in Poe's fiction, and Usher's study of the "sentience of all vegetable things" fits aptly with Poe's own preoccupations.

Madness: Poe writes that Usher "entered, at some length, into what he conceived to be the nature of his malady." What exactly is his "malady" we never learn. Even Usher seems uncertain, contradictory in his description: "It was, he said, a constitutional and a family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy--a mere nervous affection, he immediately added, which would undoubtedly soon pass off." The Narrator notes an "incoherence" and "inconsistency" in his old friend, but he offers little by way of scientific explanation of the condition. As a result, the line between sanity and insanity becomes blurred, which paves the way for the Narrator's own descent into madness.

Fear: If we were to try to define Roderick Usher's illness precisely, we might diagnose him with acute anxiety. What seems to terrify Usher is fear itself. "To an anomalous species of terror," Poe writes, "I found him a bounden slave." Usher tries to explain to the Narrator that he dreads "the events of the future, not in themselves but in their results." He dreads the intangible and the unknowable; he fears precisely what cannot be rationally feared. Fear for no apparent reason except ambiguity itself is an important motif in Poe's tale, which after all begins with the Narrator's description of his own irrational dread: "I know not how it was--but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.
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